an autodidact meets a dilettante…

‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

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returning to the race myth

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‘My own personal view is that today we over-privilege and fetishise the concept of identity’.

Mark Thomas,  Professor of evolutionary genetics, University  College, London (quoted in  Superior: the return of race science, by Angela Saini, 2019)

A couple of years ago I tackled issues of race and identity politics in a post which focussed on ‘blackface’ among other things. I don’t think there’s much I’d change about it, but my current reading of Angela Saini’s above-mentioned book, in particular the chapter ‘Roots’, which relates what anthropology has found regarding the first indicator of race amongst those who tend to obsess over it, namely skin colour, has updated my knowledge without really changing my outlook.

When we think of ‘white’ people one of the most obvious examples would be the pale, cold-weather Scots, of which I’m one. We’re not called WASPs for nothing. I was amused as an adult to find paperwork indicating that I was baptised as a Presbyterian. WTF is that? Another funny thing about my waspness is the fact that I’ve lived in sunny Australia since the age of five, my skin darkening quite splendidly every summer in the pre-sunblock era. Needless to say my intelligence dipped sharply during those months.

Saini relates a story about a 1903 archaeological discovery in Somerset, of one of the oldest human bodies ever found in Britain. Dating back some 10,000 years, he was given the name Cheddar Man as he was discovered in caves at Cheddar Gorge, and much more recently he was analysed by genetic sequencing. There was naturally a lot of interest in the genetics of this fellow, as English, or British, as cheddar cheese.

… what came as a real shock to many was that his bones… carried genetic signatures of skin pigmentation more commonly found in sub-Saharan Africa. It was probable, then, that Cheddar Man would have had dark skin. So dark, in fact, that by today’s standards he would be considered black.

Superior, Angela Saini, p167

Visual reconstructions based on the genetics also showed him to be far less WASP-looking than genteel society might condone. It was front-page news stuff, but experienced geneticists such as Mark Thomas were unfazed. The fact is that modern genomics has probably done more than anything else to scuttle the notions of fixed identities relating to blackness, whiteness, Europeaness, Asianess, Africaness, Scandinavianess or Irishness. In short the necessity of ness-ness ain’t necessarily so.

This has everything to do with genetic drift. As Thomas explains it, in pre-civilisation times, humans migrated in small groups, and would have varied physically (and of course in other ways) from those they separated from. Later, as groups grew and became more stable, there would have been an opposite effect, a greater homogeneity. Thus we see ‘Asians’, ‘Africans’ and ‘Europeans’, from our limited perspective, as near-eternal categories when in fact they’re relatively recent, and of course disintegrating with globalisation – an extremely recent phenomenon, genomically speaking.

On ‘blackness’ itself, that may have been a more recent phenomenon in our ancestry than ‘whiteness’. My good friends the bonobos, and their not-so-nice chimp cousins, tend to have light skin under their dark hair. As we moved forward in time from our ancestral link with chimps and bonobos, losing our body hair and increasing the number of sweat glands as we became more bipedal and used our speed for hunting, there would have been a selection preference for darker skin – again depending on particular environmental conditions and cultural practices. There is of course a quite large gap in our knowledge about early hominids (and there is controversy about how far back we should date the bonobo-human last common ancestor – identifying Graecopithecus as this ancestor tends to push the date further back) considering that Homo Habilis, which dates back, as far as we know, to 2.3 million years ago is the oldest member of our species identified so far. Beyond H habilis we have the Australopithecines, Ardipithecines, Sahelanthropus Tchadensis and Orrorin tugenensis, among others, which may take us back some 7 million years. DNA analysis can only take us back a few thousand years, so I don’t know how we’re ever going to sort out our deeper ancestry.

In any case, the new racial ‘ideas’, given impetus by various thugocracies in the former Yugoslavia as well as today’s Burma/Myanmar, China, India and the USA (where it may yet lead to civil war) are an indication of the fragility of truth when confronted and assaulted by fixed and fiercely held beliefs. Social media has become one of the new and most effective weapons in this assault, and when thugocracies gain control of these weapons, they become so much more formidable.

Truth of course, is, and should be its own weapon against identity politics. Knowledge should be the antidote to these supposedly indelible identities, of blackness, whiteness, Jewishness, Hindu-ness and so on. Unfortunately, too many of us are interested in confirmation than in truth. In fact, according to the psychologists Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber, in their book The enigma of reason, we use reason more often to confirm beliefs that we want to be true than for any other purpose. And when enough of the ruling class are concerned to confirm erroneous beliefs that happen to advantage them, as is the case for the current Indian Hindu government, the result is a thugocracy that oppresses women as well as the so-called ‘untouchables’ and other victims of the two-thousand year old caste system.

But having just read the chapter entitled ‘Caste’ of Angela Saini’s book, I should modify those remarks. The current Indian government is only reinforcing a system the disadvantages of which are more clear to ex-pats like Saini (and some Indian students I’ve had the pleasure of teaching) than it is to those that remain and ‘belong’. It involves more than just caste and religion, as it’s practiced by Christians and others, and enforced by families and broader relational and cultural units. My own detachment from family and cultural constraints makes it easy for me to judge this rather harshly. And in faraway Australia we hear of the horrors of in-group fealty without feeling its comforts. And naturally as a working-class lad and anti-authoritarian my sympathies are definitely with the underclass.

So how do we overcome the inwardness of caste and class systems, which are ultimately destructive of genetic diversity, not to mention causing the immiseration of millions? The answer, also provided by Mercier and Sperber’s thesis, is interaction and argument. They argue that reason developed as a social rather than an individual phenomenon. Evidence of course also must play a part. Saini’s book provides an excellent example of this, and the scientific community generally does too. Mercier and Sperber give an interesting example of how the marketplace of ideas can produce effective results over time:

The British abolitionists didn’t invent most of the arguments against slavery. But they refined them, backed them with masses of evidence, increased their credibility by relying on trustworthy witnesses, and made them more accessible by allowing them to see life through a slave’s eyes. Debates, public meetings, and newspapers brought these strengthened arguments to a booming urban population. And it worked. People were convinced not only of the evils of slavery but also of the necessity of doing something about it. They petitioned, gave money, and – with the help of other factors, from economy to international politics – had first the slave trade and then slavery itself banned.

The enigma of reason: a new theory of human understanding, H Mercier & D Sperber, p314

Some would say, of course, that slavery is still flourishing. I’ve even heard the claim that Jeff Bezos is the quintessential modern slave-owner. But nobody is credibly claiming today that slavery is reasonable. It has long ago lost the argument. That’s why evidence-based argument is our best hope for the future.

References

Superior: the return of race science, Angela Saini, 2019

The enigma of reason: a new theory of human understanding, Hugo Mercier & Dan Sperber, 2017.

 

Written by stewart henderson

June 17, 2021 at 8:51 pm

exploring the history and future of human monogamy

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the world’s dictatorships, according to someone – but remember, not all dictatorships are thugocracies and not all thugocracies are dictatorships

So, humans are predominantly monogamous, but our closest living relatives, chimps and bonobos, are sexually promiscuous within large male-female communities. When and why did we turn monogamous?

Offhand, I’ve heard of and can think of a few answers. For example, I’ve read that it began with the notion of private property, which itself began with or was reinforced by the advent of agriculture and permanent settlement. Many anthropologists try to date this, but the spread of Homo sapiens and her ancestors both within and outside of Africa produced a diversity of cultures, no doubt tightly related to environmental conditionals. For example the Australian Aborigines lived here for as much as sixty thousands years without developing permanent settlements and agriculture, and they were right not to do so, as the soil and conditions didn’t favour that lifestyle. So monogamy would have become the norm at different times for different cultures, and sometimes not at all.

Bearing all this in mind, I take with some salt the claim by Kit Opie, an evolutionary anthropologist at University College, London, that ‘the modern monogamous culture has only been around for just 1,000 years’. Okay I got this in a report from CNN Health – did they lose a zero somewhere? Opie’s argument is a familiar one, about property and inheritance, but surely this goes back more than a thousand years in Europe.

Of course, inheritance only matters when you have something to inherit, and in feudal society that wasn’t much for the vast majority. In early agricultural society, perhaps it was even less of a consideration.

Another causal factor I hadn’t considered, but which may have been effective in reinforcing monogamy rather than causing it, was the rise of STDs in earlier times. These diseases had ravaging effects, and would certainly have inhibited promiscuous behaviour among the infected and their associates. Infections of this type tend to make us more insular. The sad death of Nell Gwyn (and her lover Charles II) is a prime example. It’s likely that both syphilis and gonorrhoea jumped to humans from cattle and sheep, but that appears to be centuries rather than millennia ago.

Another theory has to do with the enlargement of the human brain, together with the changes to the female pelvic structure due to bipedalism. This of course takes us back much further in time. With females being more incapacitated during this period, and requiring assistance during childbirth, would this have resulted in closer male-female bonds? Then again, this might have strengthened female-female bonding, for obvious reasons. In any case, these problems of childbirth are likely to have increased social cohesion. And at some stage in the enlargement and greater complexity of the human brain, especially the prefrontal cortex, humans or their ancestors would have twigged to the connection between sex and pregnancy, and so male parentage, or what has been termed ‘reproductive consciousness’. An attempt to answer this ‘when’ question was posted in Slate back in 2013 (all links below), but understandably, it comes up with nothing firm, and even the claim that this understanding probably occurred in Homo sapiens between 200,000 and 50,000 years ago strikes me as questionable. Did H neanderthelensis have reproductive consciousness? Could H erectus have had some such understanding?

I would expect there to be a link between reproductive consciousness and monogamy, so answering this question is important. Of course, knowing, or having a strong sense, that a female’s new-born is also a product of a male (a very sophisticated and hard-won notion, as Matthew Cobb’s book The egg and sperm race makes clear) would change male-female dynamics in a dramatic way. It might be expected to turn the male and female into a team. It might also be expected, in a generally promiscuous culture, to turn males into jealous rivals, each asserting parenthood or ownership of the offspring over others. With no other form of proof, the ‘father’ would be the contest winner. Another way of assuring paternity, of course, is to reduce or eliminate the promiscuity, to ensure that you could be the only father.

So now I’m looking at the why of monogamy rather than the when. Anthropologists have found that different cultures have different understandings of the relation between sex and pregnancy, and there are likely different understandings within those cultures too. But even if one man’s paternity is accepted in all or most cases, we can’t be sure that this will lead to monogamy. It would depend on the group’s dynamics. For example, imagine a bonobo-like human culture, in which the mother-child bond is very strong, and adult female bonds are also very strong, so that the mother would get help from other females when she needs it (and males too will help out, but they are further along in the chain of connections). Why should males knowing that they’re the father change this dynamic? There’s already a perfectly adequate, female-centred method for bringing up baby. The males had previously been shut out, and knowledge of paternity wouldn’t necessarily change that situation, even if the females acknowledged the paternity of particular males.

Again, it seems to me that monogamy is most likely to be linked strongly to private property, which isn’t a concern for bonobos, but is more so for chimps, who fight over territory and pecking order, between and within groups. And fighting over territory has been a virtual raison d’être for humans as far back as we can trace.

So it seems that bonobos are really the outliers – less monogamous than us, less possessive and less aggressive. So is it possible to learn from those relatively dumb beasts?

Well maybe we already are, without quite being aware of it. I always live in hope. The push is on – and it is relatively recent – to recognise intellectual powers and physical skills. Women have been allowed to study at universities only recently – less than a century ago. Women’s sport has only started to come into its own in the last couple of decades. Beauty pageants – putting women in their ornamental place – are on the decline. And we note with both horror and satisfaction that the world’s thugocracies – Afghanistan, Algeria, Russia, China, North Korea, the Philippines, Hungary, Brazil, Chechnia, Belarus, Burma, Turkey, India, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Angola, Azerbaijan, Brunei, Burundi, the two Congos, Cambodia, Bahrain, Iran, Iraq, Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Chad, Cuba, Eritrea, Equatorial Guinea, Sudan, South Sudan, Nicaragua, Mauritania, Libya, Oman, Kazakhstan, Laos, Vietnam, Gabon, Qatar, Rwanda, Eswatini, Syria, Tajikistan, Thailand, Turkmenistan, Venezuela, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Uganda, Western Sahara – and yes, there are a lot, and I’m sure there are more – these thugocracies are, without exception, controlled by men. And if you look at countries run – at least for the time being – by women, such as Germany, Taiwan, New Zealand, Iceland, Denmark, Finland and Slovakia, they make for great holiday destinations, especially in the time of covid. Though they might not let you in.

So the evidence is mounting that a human world turned upside-down would be a great improvement. My hope is that women continue to band together with other women to make it happen. Sadly it won’t happen in my lifetime, but I look forward to seeing a little more progress before my span is complete. Whether this world would continue to be as monogamous as it is now is an interesting question. As has been pointed out, by Melvin Konner amongst others, men are largely surplus to requirements, once their sperm has been gathered, so they may be treated like drones, of the ant variety, and left to die. Or maybe they’ll be kept on as pets and playthings, as well as useful drudges. Whatever the future holds, monogamy is certainly not a necessary part of it.

References and links

https://edition.cnn.com/2016/05/17/health/sti-infanticide-human-monogamy/index.html

Matthew Cobb, The egg & sperm race, 2006

https://worldpopulationreview.com/country-rankings/dictatorship-countries

https://www.usnews.com/news/best-countries/articles/2021-03-08/why-countries-with-female-leaders-have-responded-well-to-the-pandemic

Melvin Konner, Women after all: sex, evolution and the end of male supremacy, 2015

https://antday.com/?lang=en&pageid=castes

Written by stewart henderson

June 7, 2021 at 7:28 pm

clothing: when a solution becomes a problem

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Canto: So we talked previously about the horror of stilettos, which was all about the absurdity of fashion, and the sad fate of fashion victims, sigh, but fashion, and the clothing industry in general has lots of problems at the production end as well as for the end-users.

Jacinta: Yes – of course at the user end there’s the huge problem of waste. I walked past a nearby Salvos shop on the weekend, and their donation bins were overflowing to a ridiculous degree, piled up in the doorway, and neighbouring doorways, extending a long way down the street.

Canto: At least people are trying to recycle, but I wouldn’t like the job of sorting that stuff out. And of course the people who do that job are volunteers, though living in a country with a reasonable safety net and a minimum wage which is one of the highest in the world according to this Australian Industry Group website. But wages and conditions, as well as our buying habits, especially those of your fellow female primates, are what I want to focus on today.

Jacinta: So women, especially teens, buy these cheap foreign-made clothes from overseas sweat-shops, wear them once or twice and chuck them out – they call it ‘fast fashion’ – and the cycle continues. A handful at the top are making tons of money, while others are getting sick from overwork or from ingesting toxic chemicals. Petrochemical-based textiles now make up 10% of the world’s carbon emissions and rising. They also add to the biosphere’s growing microplastics problem. According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), 35% of microplastics come from these textiles.

Canto: I should point out another issue with ‘fast fashion’. When the fashion changes, which it does on an almost weekly basis, the brand names, such as H&M, Topshop, PrettyLittleThing and please don’t make me name any more, they just dump them.

Jacinta: Yes, but not in recycling bins. Only about 1% of textile waste is currently recycled, for all sorts of reasons, such as the technology required to separate blended chemical textiles. They can be shipped to India or African countries, but that just delays the problem briefly.

Canto: It’s kind of fascinating how many problems we make for ourselves by becoming supposedly more sophisticated, manufacturing and then dumping all these techno-solutions. We’re the only mammals that wear clothes, and as with footwear, it’s hard to say exactly when all that began, never mind when it all morphed into competitive fashion shite.

Jacinta: Actually we can only say that we’re the only extant mammals to wear clothes. An associated question is, when did we start, and finish, losing our body hair? Here’s an interesting quote from one Charles Darwin:

No one supposes that the nakedness of the skin is any direct advantage to man; his body, therefore, cannot have been divested of hair through natural selection.

He thought it was a matter of sexual selection. Do we find hairless bodies more attractive? Maybe, but probably not universally. Today we undoubtedly find bonobo/chimp/gorilla-type hair unattractive, but that’s surely because we associate it with non-human primates. Many women I know find men with hairy legs quite the turn-on.

Canto: But not furry legs. They have to be humanly hairy. So maybe there was a natural advantage to being less hairy. The move into open, sunlit spaces seems to have been key. If you’re covered in hair, it reduces heat loss through the skin. Also, being upright exposed less of the body surface to the sun. Probably explains why we keep the hair on our heads, to protect those heads, and the ever-expanding brains inside them, from getting fried.

Jacinta: And in the cooler regions, and during cooler eras, and at night, we could supplement our hair with artificial coverings, proto-clothing. But in those regions and times, plenty of hair would be an advantage. But anyway, for some reason, our ancestors started losing their body hair. I wonder when, exactly.

Canto: There’s probably no exactly. But upright stature helped in hunting, allowing us to run long distances, in which case losing heat through sweating would’ve been advantageous. Remember, it would’ve been easier to keep warm, through covering, than to cool down, with all that hair.

Jacinta: They could stay in the shade, like bonobos do.

Canto: Big-brained humans require too much energy for their owners to spend time under yum-yum trees. We have lots of sweat glands compared to other primates. It helps us to run fast and long. Those monkeys that have more sweat glands than others are also fast movers. There are some puzzles about all this, though, about what came first and why – reduced hair, bipedalism, larger brain. 

Jacinta: But getting back to modern clothing and fast fashion and the like – or maybe not modern clothing. I’m thinking, when did clothing become mandatory. Maybe it’s not manatory in all cultures, but among our European forebears, how did it manage to become grossly offensive to go about naked like our bonobo cousins? It seems to have happened very recently in paleontological terms. I mean it’s associated with civilised behaviour somehow. 

Canto: Only ‘savages’ went about in the altogether. Or ancient Greek actors and athletes. Of course, clothing quickly became a hierarchical thing – the higher-ups dressed more elaborately, and the proles weren’t allowed to, and so were despised for their shabbiness. Being completely naked was real low-life stuff, and a sexual element evolved alongside all of that. And a gender element. 

Jacinta: That’s going a bit fast, perhaps, but I’m sure it’s on the right track. So I’ve found various sites discussing this issue of hiding our genitals. John Romero provides a pretty comprehensive account, of clothing in general as well as our new age modesty. He reminds us, for example, that nakedness among the Greeks wasn’t confined to performers and athletes. Public baths were communal, as were Roman toilets – they didn’t blush when they flushed. Actually, they didn’t flush, at least not the way we do. Of course the creation myth of Judeo-Christianity, which had small beginnings but soon spread throughout Europe and the globe, had Adam and Eve feel ashamed when they realised they were naked, but it doesn’t explain the realisation, since they were the only humans on the planet at the time apparently. Nevertheless, this association with nakedness and shame was hammered home by church authorities, and has much to do with current attitudes.

Canto: But the association between nudity and shame was clearly felt by those early biblical writers. That dates it to around 2,600 years ago at most, though religious biblical scholars generally prefer an older date.

Jacinta: We just don’t have any way of dating the origin of nudity as shameful. Clothing is only the most obvious way of concealing nudity, but the origin of clothing surely has nothing to do with shame. And nobody really knows when clothing originated, or when we lost our body hair, which was clearly a gradual process. But to return to our arguably over-dressed, throwaway modern society – which often plays with modesty in a titillating way…

Canto: Modesty’s a tricky word though. Isn’t wearing showy expensive clothing a kind of immodesty?

Jacinta: I was thinking of the skin-tight fashion of young women – I don’t know about the price. Not that I disapprove, I’m only concerned with the waste.

Canto: Better for the environment if they go about naked, you’re right.

Jacinta: Hmmm…

 

References

Australia had the highest minimum wage in the world in 2019

https://www.thelovepost.global/protection/articles/fast-fashion-loose-ethics-human-and-environmental-cost-cheap-clothing-and-what

http://www.bbc.com/earth/story/20160801-our-weird-lack-of-hair-may-be-the-key-to-our-success

https://www.quora.com/Why-did-humans-initially-start-to-hide-their-privates-from-other-humans

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clothing

 

Written by stewart henderson

May 24, 2021 at 7:46 pm

A bonobo world 39 – a world turned upside-down?

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yummy scummy

Jacinta: Why did Homo floresiensis go extinct? What happened to Homo neanderthalensis? What about mastodons, Australia’s megafauna, thylacines, dodos, stegodonts, mammoths, passenger pigeons, aurochs, great auks, quaggas, moas, and maybe hundreds more dead species?

Canto: Well humans are accused of being the direct cause, though no doubt there are lawyers out there with ingenious arguments to the contrary, or at least in mitigation. It might be argued for example that the rise to supremacy of H sapiens is a good thing, at least for H sapiens, and it could never have occurred without a bit of damage. I mean, there are plenty of species left, and more will come as nature selects them. And besides, we’re so smart we could bring many of those species back to life, if it’s not too inconvenient.

Jacinta: Hmmm, the issue of de-extinction aside, modern humanity is actually good at learning from its mistakes, and re-appraising our relationships with other species, and with other cultures within our own. That’s why I’m obsessing over bonobos and our own overly macho culture. We need an overhaul and more and more humans are becoming aware of it.

Canto: So I know you’re talking about that world-turned-upside down idea again, what with a large majority of our political leaders being men, surrounded by mostly male advisers and government ministers, dealing with overwhelmingly male business leaders and public intellectuals, male military brass, a male judiciary and scientific community…

Jacinta: Male billionaires, male mass-shooters, male sports stars, mostly… why are we so invisible in the public sphere?

Canto: The times they are-a-changin mate. Okay, forget that. It really is interesting to think what our world would be like if the men were in the position the women are now. And of course we can’t seriously turn to bonobos to find out. Can we?

Jacinta: Let’s leave that aside for now.

Canto: Anyway, crazy as it might be, our current situation has a long history…

Jacinta: Yeah, like astrology and traditional Chinese medicine, which is mostly horseshit.

Canto: I thought it was rhinos…

Jacinta: The point isn’t to understand our world historically, but to change it.

Canto: Yes, but in order to change gears, you need to know how a gearshift works.

Jacinta: ??

Canto: We need to know, I mean it would be helpful to know how we got into this lopsided mess, so we can extricate ourselves…

Jacinta: Yes, and sexual dimorphism isn’t the reason, because bonobos. Division of labour is more likely. Hunting and gathering. Both activities require getting out and about, far from GHQ, whatever that was in early hunter-gatherer days – makeshift constructions, caves. But the hunters would’ve travelled much further afield. Hunting trips may have lasted days.

Canto: But I think we need to be careful about that hunter-gatherer term. It’s surely too neat. I’m getting the impression, for example that the Australian Aboriginal survival life was much more complex, with fish traps, organised burnings and the like. A lot of accumulated knowledge to enable them to gain more foodstuff with less output. A bit like us really.

Jacinta: Yeah they knew how to store their food for a rainy day – but then so do tons of bird species. Anyway, let’s move on to the age of agriculture. Fixed dwellings. And remember it was the women who had the children.

Canto: Really?

Jacinta: They might carry the newborns out to the fields, but once they became pesky toddlers they were too much of a hindrance…

Canto: Yes, and more… Imagine this conversation: ‘Now Wilma you need to keep the little one home, she’s impossible to keep an eye on here, and you know how dangerous it is with those big flaming birds…’ ‘Oh don’t remind me again Fred..’ ‘Well I will – that big bloody bird took the neighbour’s little one, flew off with him, dropped him on that rock, and Bam Bam, that was the end of him’. ‘Dear god of our harvest, you’re a bastard, Fred’. ‘Bam bam, you should’ve seen the mess. Anyway you need to keep her home, keep her occupied, make some pretty jewellery…’ ‘I’m sick of being home, how many times have I told you…’ ‘Yeah but look – hey are you preggers again? Is that one mine, or has that Barney been creeping around? I know he wants another Bam-Bam, but I’ll Bam Bam him….’

Jacinta: Yes, thought-provoking. And Fred would stick his arm out and say  ‘Feel that muscle? That tells you I can do enough work for two. So you just stay home and prepare some of that great brain food you’re so good at. All those omega-6 and omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids and trace elements and such, they’re just doing my head in they’re so good. A man sure needs a maid and you sure is the best’.

Canto: This is getting overly speculative I think. I mean, you’re assuming monogamy at this stage, which is perhaps reasonable but not certain. So this scenario is from around 10,000 years ago? That’s when they say agriculture got started, at the earliest. And we know that most primates are non-monogamous. I’m thinking of the connection between monogamy and division of labour. And there’s also the idea of wives – but not husbands – as property, which is a feature of the Old Testament.

Jacinta: Well to be fair husbands could often be treated that way, as in ‘stop trying to steal my man or I’ll rip your eyes out’, but mostly it was the husband who carried the club, now replaced by the Kalishnikov AK-47 among others. I think monogamy goes back a long way. Ferdinand Mount, in his book The subversive family, argues that monogamous romantically-based relations are a permanent feature of humanity, but by ‘permanent’ he really means as far back as written records, and not even that, as his examples mostly go back some hundreds of years. I’m prepared to accept that monogamy goes back as far as agriculture and the establishment of fixed dwellings, and more restricted notions of property…

Canto: So do you think that if we did have a world-turned upside down we’d be less monogamous?

Jacinta: Uhhh, hesitantly I’d say yes, but in such a way that the offspring wouldn’t suffer. I mean you can see the trend in developed countries – with the rise of women’s rights came the new appreciation of children and their rights and value. ‘A woman’s place is in the home’, and ‘spare the rod and spoil the child’, those clichés went together in blighted Victorian England.

Canto: Funny that, considering that Victoria was a woman, I’ve heard. But that was Irony Age England for you.

Jacinta: Again, with bonobos and other less male-dominated primate societies, infanticide is virtually non-existent. It’s quite prevalent in other primate societies. Female promiscuity is used as a strategy to keep males from killing the kids. ‘Oh shit, that one was mine, I think. Now I feel such a fool’.

Canto: Well I’m okay with female promiscuity personally.

Jacinta: Yeah and it also happens to be fun – variety’s the spice of life and all. Of course monogamy can be defined in various ways, for example as a tendency rather than a strict rule. But the tendency toward monogamy might’ve evolved as a response to environmental stresses – stresses that generally no longer exist for us. And so we see a rise in single-parent families, because they can manage now, albeit with difficulty, which they could barely do in previous centuries. Genetic studies, by the way, place human monogamy as having evolved between 10,000 and 20,000 years ago. But I’m sure that’ll be endlessly disputed.

Canto: So have we worked out how we got into this lop-sided mess?

Jacinta: Well, sort of, and I think we’re slowly extricating ourselves. Less aggression, more collaboration, in an extremely uneven way from a global perspective, and in a two steps forward, one step back, Steven Pinker-type sense. Which requires work, community-building work to bring us all together out of the stresses that plague too many of us. We’re mostly in a post-industrial society, but exploitation proceeds apace. We need to call that out, in government, in business, and between nations. Anyone would think we’re not just one species, the way some people carry on.

References

https://www.reuters.com/article/us-science-infanticide-idUSKCN0IX2BA20141113

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monogamy

Ferdinand Mount, The subversive family, 1981

Barbujani G (2003). “A recent shift from polygyny to monogamy in humans is suggested by the analysis of worldwide Y-chromosome diversity”. J Mol Evol. 57 (1): 85–97.

 

 

 

Written by stewart henderson

May 13, 2021 at 4:54 pm

a bonobo world 37: chimps r us?

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human tool use

There are a number of videos, including one by David Attenborough’s Planet Earth team, showing how chimps are able to engage in planned attacks on neighbouring chimp groups in a way that resembles, and is seen as ancestral to, tribal warfare among hominids and humans. The 4-minute Planet Earth vid doesn’t mention whether the attacking chimps are all male – a question of great interest to me – though it does mention an attack on an enemy female, which is unsurprising, considering human warfare. The fact that defeated chimps are sometimes eaten raises the grizzly question about our more recent ancestors, and our human selves. We may never have eaten our human victims alive (though we probably have), but we have subjected them to far more excruciating suffering than any other Earth-bound species could manage.

I’ve often claimed that we’re leaving warfare behind us, especially with the push to female empowerment, but I’m never quite sure if this is just wishful thinking. We should never allow ourselves to be complacent about apparent trends, to assume they’re somehow inevitable. And of course while need to push for such empowerment, we shouldn’t assume that this will produce the desired result, regarding ‘peace, love and understanding’ or anything else. We need to examine the evidence.

That’s why bonobo culture is so intensely interesting. It raises important questions. What exactly is the relationship between the power structure within bonobo groups – power held mostly by females – and their level of in-group aggression? How exactly does this compare with human power structures and human-to human aggression? How do these different power structures relate to hunting practices and diet? We know that the bonobo diet includes less meat than that of chimps, but is this due more to environment (bonobos are more arboreal, for example), or to social structure? Humans, we know, can get by on a vegetarian diet, and we also know that a less meat-heavy diet is more beneficial for the environment. We have also moved far beyond our primate cousins in being able to produce food through cultivation, using, over time, less and less land to produce more and more food. We even have the means, if not the will, to mass-produce artificial meat – ‘you won’t believe it’s not meat’.

Yet male aggression, in the domestic sphere, in politics, on the sports field, and in riotous assemblies, is as much a problem as ever. A world turned upside-down, with government, business, the law, science, academia and the military being led by women to the same extent as they are led by men today, that’s the impossible dream scenario that may solve this problem. Or not. But then, bonobos are so like chimps, aren’t they? I mean physically. But socially they’re not. The differences aren’t that great, and it only took a million or two years to produce them.

Of course, that’s where we’re hugely different. The changes we’ve undergone – we of European ancestry – in only the past few thousand years have been astonishing, and they do seem to be accelerating. But in those developments there’s hope. If you’re prepared to believe we can find solutions to anthropogenic global warming, to the loss of species diversity, to our own ageing population, and to the various national and cultural enmities that plague us as a species, then you can surely believe we can move towards a happier, sexier bonobo-type social existence with all the human benefits we can add to it through our extraordinarily imaginative, creative, problem-solving minds. Chimps r us, it may sometimes seem, but with the ascent of woman, bonobos r our future. At least it’s worth a try. I for one would love to be a male in a female-dominant human world. At least I just can’t imagine how it would be worse than the world we’ve made for ourselves.

Reference

Violent chimpanzee attack – Planet Earth – BBC wildlife (video)

Written by stewart henderson

April 26, 2021 at 11:16 pm

a bonobo world 26: boys and girls at work and play

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Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna, brilliant women with great dress sense

In her introduction to The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir wrote this: 

.. the truth is that anyone can clearly see that humanity is split into two categories of individuals with manifestly different clothes, faces, bodies, smiles, movements, interests and occupations; these differences are perhaps superficial; perhaps they are destined to disappear. What is certain is that for the moment they exist in a strikingly obvious way.

A whole book could easily be written – some already have – to expand on this apparently mundane observation. Today in the west, or the developed world, or Anglo-American or Euro-American society (I never know quite what to call it), there are no set rules, of course, about how people should dress, or behave, or work or play, gender-wise, but there are conventions and social pressures, and I’ve noted encouraging developments, as well as their opposite.

A close female friend expressed a certain despair/disdain the other day in telling me that Dr Jill Biden, aged 69, wore stilettos for her husband’s confirmation as US President. I share that friend’s conviction that stilettos should only be used as murder weapons. In any case men only wear stilettos when in drag, which is all too rare. 

On clothing and accessories, while today’s variety is inspiring and liberating for both sexes, one still sees frustrating gender-based tendencies everywhere. Frills and furbelows have long been all the go for female formal attire, while tuxes or frock-coats are de rigueur for males, compleat with ties, bowed or straight. These traditions tend to emphasise gender differences you’d never notice in bonobos, though there is a welcome playfulness of gender-swapping attire among the elites, seldom replicated in your local bar or restaurant. 

What has constantly surprised me, as a person who spent his youth in the sixties and seventies, when déclassé jeans and t-shirts, in colourful variety, were common and pleasantly informal, is that those decades didn’t establish a trend of ambisexual dress – just as I’ve been surprised that traditional marriage didn’t get thrown out as seemed to be on the cards in those days. Marriage today appears to represent much of human ambiguity – a commitment to monogamous ideals even while recognising their limitations, even their absurdity. Conservatives argue that loyalty is a much undervalued value, but it’s always been possible to have more than one loyal friend, with benefits. Bonobos manage to have a bunch of them. Bonobos aren’t being rad, they’re just being bonobos. Which raises the question, what is it, to be humans?

David Deutsch, in The beginning of infinity, celebrates and encourages our infinite possibilities, to find solutions, to expand our outlooks, to achieve outrageously amazing things. He writes of the value of optimism over pessimism, and progress over stasis. I’m largely in agreement, but with some reservations. He has nothing to say about community, for example. Community, it seems to me, has become ever more important as change has become more rapid. As Deutsch and others have pointed out, during the many thousands of years when humans lived the hunter-gatherer life, with no doubt many variations, life simply didn’t change from generation to generation. And as long as that life was sustainable, there was little need for new developments, new hunting or grinding implements, new forms of shelter or clothing. So, nobody was out of date or old-fashioned, there were no old fuddy-duddies you wouldn’t be seen dead with. In fact, quite the opposite – the elders would have been more expert at the latest technology, developed in the previous aeon, than the youngsters, who would marvel at how those old guys’ boomerangs always came back (okay, they were never actually intended to). Given this relatively static society, it’s hardly surprising that elders were more respected, for their skills, experience and store of communal lore, than today’s nursing home denizens. And, as always, I’m aware of the multifarious nature of modern human societies, static and otherwise, to which I have little access, beyond book-larnin. Most of these societies or cultures, though, are today forced to interact with others, creating identity confusions and divided loyalties by the brainload.

Anyway, sticking with the White Anglo-Saxon ex-Protestant culture I’m familiar with, I’m a bit shocked that, despite two or more waves of feminism in the last century or so, women are still earning less than men and paying more for what I would deem unnecessary accoutrements, including hairstyles, bling, fancy tattoos, make-up and the aforementioned frills and furbelows. I recently bought a ‘men’s’ stick deodorant, which seemed to me nothing more than an anti-perspirant, and which was identical to that of my female partner, only bigger, and cheaper! These are ‘first-world issues’, of course, but they reflect, in little, an exploitation of the feminine worldwide, which seems a hard nut to crack.  

There’s of course a thing about eternal youth, in regard to women, that should be addressed. Men in their fifties don’t wear make-up, at least not the ones I know. Quite a few women I know, in their fifties, and older, also don’t wear make-up, but let’s face it, most of them do – with all the expense, as well as the time and effort, this involves. They do it, presumably, to hide the effects of gravity, though gravity always wins, as Radiohead informs us. With men, apparently, gravity lends gravitas.

I’ve often – in fact, ever since adolescence  – imagined myself as female. Mostly lesbian female, though I did have an early period of male-male attraction. So, if I did turn out female, how would I behave, appearance-wise, now that I’m in my sixties? Would I wear an op-shop jacket, t-shirt (usually with some thought-bubble printing) and chino-type trousers, as I do now? I hope so. It’s a kind of unisex outfit for academic and sciencey people, the types I’ve always aspired to be. But unfortunately, feminists have recently written of the pink/blue divide in children’s clothing that’s stronger than ever, as well as the divide in toys – fighting, racing and danger versus dancing, cuddling and beauty. This appears to be driven by manufacturers and advertisers, who, like social media moguls, seem to derive a benefit from driving their customers down wormholes of like-mindedness. Not surprisingly, social psychologists find that children benefit from being more unisex in these choices – not a matter of turning them into their opposites, but seeing dolls and trucks as others see them, and generally being more colourful. And slowly, all too slowly, we’re following this advice, and seeing more male nurses and female truck-drivers than previously. Not to mention female white supremacists sporting submachine guns – but that’s only in the US, they do things differently there. And more males working in child-care? That’s another nut to crack.

References

Simone de Beauvoir, Le Deuxième Sexe (1949), new translation 2009.

https://www.naeyc.org/resources/topics/play/gender-typed-toys

 

Written by stewart henderson

January 29, 2021 at 12:59 pm

A bonobo world and other impossibilities 24: women and warfare (1)

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The following is re-posted and was first written on this blog in December 2018, but I’m doing this under a new title (with some changes) because it clearly belongs in this series.

female ring-tailed lemur – strong and sexy

I recently listened to a bit of historian Margaret McMillan, along with some military reps, on the radio talking about warfare past and future. It was recorded during a public talk on the topic. I’ve got her book, The Uses and Abuses of History, which I’ve not yet read, but I was struck by her pessimistic attitude. Of course she’s right to say that warfare isn’t about to disappear, and dog knows we have a proliferation of macho thugs on the global scene at present, but her somewhat dismissive description of Pinker’s thesis, that the world is getting less violent, rather irked me. She described the thesis as ‘persuasive but too positive’ or some such term (which struck me as odd if not disingenuous – obviously she wasn’t persuaded). To me, considering that, almost to the end of the nineteenth century, warfare was a way of life for many a European male, and that the so-called Great War showed so many people how disastrous zero-sum game nationalism and one-eyed patriotism can be, and how far we have come, generally, from seeing other cultures as ‘savage’ or backward, and especially how far we’ve progressed in multiculturalism over the past century or so, I can’t accept that we haven’t made great strides in reducing warfare among civilised nations in the 20th century and beyond. Not, of course, without great cost, in the early half of that century especially. Our knowledge of our own destructive capabilities has acted as something of a brake.

But it was a response during question time that has prompted me to write. MacMillan was asked whether things would be better if, say, the US President was a woman, or some such thing. Anyway the gist of the question was whether warfare would be reduced if women were in charge. Macmillan was again sceptical/pessimistic, citing Indira Ghandi’s record as India’s PM. Of course she could’ve cited others, like Margaret Thatcher, or even Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace prizewinner who’s been so much under fire for Burma’s treatment of its Rohingya population. But I found this response to be shallow and fatuous. The case of Aung San Suu Kyi is most telling – she’s largely a captive of the all-male military, all Buddhists like the all-male monks who’ve been most active in the Rohingya persecutions. But it’s the same for all female heads of state. Their cabinets and their political advisers are overwhelmingly male, they have to deal with a military sector which is entirely male, and a business sector which is much the same. All the power in all the lands you care to mention is massively male. Massively. In order to seriously answer the question ‘What if women were in charge?’ you have to imagine a ‘world turned upside down’. Anything less, as I say, would be a fatuous and shallow response. You would have to imagine a world with a more or less all-female political-military-business sector. And if you think that’s crazy, why don’t you think the current more or less all-male power situation is crazy?

The fact is that statistically, women are less aggressive than men. We can go into all sorts of genetic, hormonal, cultural and environmental reasons for this – and it’s important to explore all of that – but the fact itself is undeniable. It also appears that women are more collaborative – more able to work especially with other women. Of course women can be aggressive and highly competitive – I love women’s sports, but I notice that in women’s soccer and basketball I’ve never once seen the kind of all-in biffo that quite regularly spoils the men’s version of these sports. This is no accident (and nor is it necessarily a permanent feature – societies evolve, for better or worse).

Wars in the past have always been associated with manliness – not just physical warfare, but the kind of business and political warfare that Trump – the archetypal wannabe macho ‘winner’ – engages in. And in an increasingly interconnected and inter-reliant global scenario, this kind of warfare is proving more and more counter-productive.

I believe that one day – though hardly in the near future – we will socially evolve, out of sheer necessity, into civilisations in which women hold the balance of power. It won’t simply be a ‘world turned upside down’ but more like a move from chimp-like society to bonobo-like society. I’ve held this view for a long time but I’ve hardly dared express it. Luckily, so few people read my writing that I’m unlikely to experience much blowback, but in any case many would argue that it’s illegitimate to compare humans with other species. Not just because of the essentially religious idea of ‘human specialness’, but because ‘civilisation’ or ‘culture’ has so altered the human psyche that it’s essentially useless to compare us with species that either don’t have culture or have it in only the most rudimentary form.

I doubt if Darwin would agree, as much of his work focussed on the extraordinary complexity of non-human species, and the ‘instinctiveness’ of humans. In any case I’ll focus now on other primates, all of whom are socially organised in one way or another.

The lemurs of Madagascar are prosimians, species of primates that are considered less ‘evolved’ than simians. Outside of their current island home, lemurs were out-competed by the more adapted species they gave rise to. Fascinatingly, all lemur species are female-dominant, though not always through sexual dimorphism. Lemurs live in small groups, with a generally even male-female ratio. A key feature of lemur social life is the creation of coalitions, especially as regards sexual behaviour, and sexual behaviour, obviously, is key to any species’ survival and development. The lemurs are something of a mystery in regard to their female-dominant traits, which has even given rise to a slightly pejorative title for the mystery – the lemur syndrome. In any case, understanding their group dynamics, involving coalitions, competition and sex, inter alia, and linking this behaviour to genes, gene expression and neurological findings – which are being increasingly honed and targeted – is essential to solving the mystery.

The same goes, of course, for all prosimian and simian species. The vast majority of them are male-dominant, often, but not always reflected in a greater or lesser degree of sexual dimorphism. Size isn’t everything in species with complex and sometimes gender-based group dynamics. And so I come to that old favourite topic, chimps and bonobos, our equal-closest living relatives.

Chimps can be violent towards each other, often to a sickening degree – almost as sickening as humans – but, as with humans, this violence is clearly not ultimately self-destructive. For example, when a gang of chimps come across a stray member of a neighbouring group, it’s not uncommon for them to bite, kick and stomp the unfortunate to death. There have even been occasions when one group has slaughtered another wholesale, though one or two might survive by flight – and again, human comparisons spring to mind.

Chimps live in fission-fusion social groups, meaning that they form small, relatively unstable groups within a larger association which may amount to hundreds. Within these groups, large or small, there is a male linear dominance hierarchy, in which the group has one alpha male, who dominates all the others, followed by a beta male, who dominates everyone but the alpha, and so on down the line. Males remain in their birth communities, but females emigrate more or less at adolescence. This means that the young females entering a new group are of lower status and are viewed with suspicion (think of refugees at the US southern border). It also means that the females break kinship ties more than the males. Males also bond through co-operative hunting and boundary patrolling, and in attacking other groups. Again, think of human tribal behaviour. In some chimp communities kinship has been observed to be more important than other coalitions, in others not, but in either case male bonding adds to dominance over females. Co-operative hunting, it should be added, is having serious effects on the hunted, which is usually the red colobus monkey, which is in serious decline in multiple sites where chimps are thriving.

There is always one power that females have in these societies, the power to produce offspring – to maintain the species. Estrus in chimps is marked by visible swelling of the anogenital region, though the first of these swellings occurs before the young female is fertile, and may be a way of attracting males in her new community. Females are able to give birth (parturition) at 13-14 years, but if they aren’t accepted in the community, there’s a danger of infanticide by males, especially as females often use promiscuity to establish themselves. Infanticide tends to reduce the female’s interbirth interval, and favours the genetic line of the male doing the killing (one wonders if they have a way of ‘knowing’ that the murdered child isn’t theirs). Chimp sexual activity is generally promiscuous, though it most often occurs during estrus (maximal tumescence). The female, of course, has to strategise to find the best opportunity for producing healthy and communally favoured offspring – not an easy task, as it leads to secretiveness, suspicion, jealousy and so forth.

Of course, I’m writing this to draw comparisons between chimp societies and early human societies, out of which our modern civilisations developed. Human societies are more complex, naturally, reflecting individual, neurological complexity, and greater, more diverse cultural complexity, but the basis of our patriarchy can certainly be traced in our chimp relatives. Bonobos, however, are quite different, and remarkably so considering their relatively recent divergence from their chimp cousins. Humans have one great advantage over chimps and bonobos, I think. We can consciously teach ourselves to change, to be better adapted to a biosphere we have increasingly recognised is interdependent and precious in its astonishing diversity. And we can learn a lot about this from bonobos.

References

Margaret MacMillan, The uses and abuses of history, 2010.

Charles Darwin, On the origin of species by means of natural selection, 1859

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lemur

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chimpanzee

 

Written by stewart henderson

January 25, 2021 at 8:50 pm

a bonobo world? 11

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another bitter-sweet reflection on capacities and failures

I was in a half-asleep state, and I don’t know how to describe it neurologically, but subjectively I was hearing or being subjected to a din in my head, a kind of babble, like in an echoing school canteen. Then I heard a knocking sound above the din, then in a transforming whoosh all the din stopped in my head, it became silent apart from the knocking, and then, as a kind of wakening crystallisation clarified things, another sound, of trickling water. I quickly realised this was the sound from the shower above me, and the knocking was of the pipes being affected by the rush of hot water. But what really interested me was what had just happened in my brain. The din, of thought, or inchoate thought, or of confusedly buzzing neural connections, was dampened down instantly when this new sound forced itself into my – consciousness? – at least into a place or a mini-network which commanded attention. It, the din, disappeared as if a door had been slammed on it. 

I can’t describe what happened in my brain better than this, though I’m sure that this concentration of focus, or activity, in one area of my brain, and the concomitant dropping of all other foci or activity, to facilitate that concentration, was something essential to human, and of course other animal, neurology. Something observed but not controlled by ‘me’. Something evolved. I like the way this is shared by mice and men, women and wombats. 

But of course there are big differences too. I’ve described the experience, whatever it is, in such a way that a neurologist, on reading or listening to me, would be able to explain my experience more fully, or, less likely, be inspired to examine it or experiment with its no-doubt miriad causal pathways. I suppose this experience, though more or less everyday and unthreatening, is associated with flight-or-fight. The oddity of the sound, its difference from the background din, or perhaps rather my awareness of its oddity, caused a kind of brain-flip, as all its forces, or most of them, became devoted to identifying it. Which caused me to awaken, to marshall a fuller consciousness. How essential this is, in a world of predators and home intruders, and how much fun it is, and how useful it is, to try for a fuller knowledge of what’s going on. And so we go, adding to our understanding, developing tools for further investigation, finding those tools might just have other uses in expanding other areas of our knowledge, and the world of our ape cousins is left further and further behind. For me, this is a matter of pride, and a worry. I’m torn. The fact that I think the way I do has to do with my reading and my reflections, the habits of a lifetime. Some have nerdiness, if that’s what it is, thrust upon them. I’m fascinated by the human adventure, in its beginnings and its future. Its beginnings are connected to other apes, to old world and new world monkeys, to tarsiers, to tree shrews and rodents and so on, all the way back to archaea and perhaps other forms yet to be discovered. We need to fully recognise this connectivity. Its future, what with our increasing dominance over other species and the earthly landscape, our obsession with growth, our throwaway mindset, but also our ingenious solutions, our capacity for compassion and for global cooperation, that future is and always will be a mystery, just outside of our manipulating grasp, with every new solution creating more problems requiring more solutions. 

A few hundred years ago, indeed right up to the so-called Great War of 1914, human warfare was a much-celebrated way of life. And we still suffer a kind of hero-worship of military adventurism, and tell lies about it. In the USA, many times over the most powerful military nation on earth, the media are always extolling the sacrifice of those who fought to ‘keep America safe’. This is a hackneyed platitude, considering that, notwithstanding the highly anomalous September 11 2001 attack, the country has never had to defend its borders in any war. Military casualties are almost certain to occur in a foreign country, where the USA is seeking to preserve or promote its own interest, generally against the interests of that country. In this respect, the USA, it should be said, is no better or worse than any other powerful country throughout history. The myth of military might entailing moral superiority, which began with the dawn of civilisations, dies hard, as ‘American exceptionalism’ shows. 

But globalism, international trade, travel, communication and co-operation, is making for a safer and less combative human society than ever before. So, as militarism as a way of life recedes, we need to focus on the problems of globalism and economic growth. As many have pointed out, the pursuit of growth and richesse is producing many victims, many ‘left-behind’. It’s dividing families and creating a culture of envy, resentment and often unmitigated hatred of the supposedly threatening ‘other’. The world of the bonobo – that tiny community of a few tens of thousands – tinier than any human nation – a gentle, fun-loving, struggling, sharing world – seems as distant to us as the world of the International Space Station, way out there. And yet…

 

Written by stewart henderson

November 16, 2020 at 12:10 pm

a bonobo world? 5

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Chapter 1 – Culture (continued)

It’s also worth noting that the damage done to the earlier inhabitants of Rapa Nui and Australia was more than merely inadvertent. Certainly very little was known about the epidemiology of smallpox at the time, but the lack of understanding of environmental conditions – largely due to bringing a European mindset to dealing with altogether different circumstances, was ruinous to the vegetation and wildlife of both the tiny Pacific island and the vast ‘Great Southern Land’. Mostly this involved deforestation for sheep and cattle grazing. In Rapa Nui also, an activity known as ‘blackbirding’, the kidnapping of Pacific island natives to work as slave labour in Peru and in Australia in the mid-nineteenth century, had a devastating effect, with about 1500 people being abducted (or killed), a sizeable proportion of the population, in only two years (1862-3). 

The purpose of detailing all this is to raise awareness of the complexity of culture, to guard against prejudging and dismissing cultures as inferior to our own, and to consider our own shortcomings as a culture. And this can extend to our relations with other species also, of course. Now consider the following quote:

“These frozen faces … mark a civilization which failed to take the first step on the ascent of rational knowledge.” Bronowski said, “I am fond of these ancient, ancestral faces, but in the end, all of them are not worth one child’s dimpled face”, for one human child—any child—has the potential to achieve more than that entire civilization did. Yet “for most of history, civilizations have crudely ignored that enormous potential … children have been asked simply to conform to the image of the adult.” And thus ascent has been sabotaged or frozen.

It is taken from David Deutsch’s admiring essay on Jacob Bronowski and his series The ascent of man, and it refers to the statues found on Rapa Nui and to the culture that created them. Deutsch highlights the ‘ascent’ element of Bronowski’s series, and he elaborates further on this in his book The beginning of infinity, the central thesis of which – that humans are capable of more or less infinite development and improvement – I’m quite sympathetic to. However, in dismissing ‘the customary condescending doublethink towards primitive cultures’, of many anthropologists, and supporting Bronowski’s apparently wholesale contempt for the Rapa Nui statue builders, Deutsch makes a fatal error, the same type of error, in fact that Robert O’Hara Burke made in rejecting the advice and help of ‘mere savages’ who had learned, no doubt by painful trial and error, to survive more or less comfortably for millennia on the meagre resources of the desert environment of Central Australia. This example of cultural arrogance led directly to Burke’s death.

Now, to be fair to Deutsch, he fully recognises that he himself wouldn’t survive for long in central Australia’s hostile environment, or that of Saharan Africa, Mongolia, Antarctica or any other forbidding place. But I think he fails to sufficiently recognise that particular cultures, like species, adapt to particular environments, some of which are more static than others – but none of which are entirely static. That’s why I think Bronowski’s statement, that Rapa Nui’s statues and the massive platforms created for them, ‘mark a civilisation which failed to take the first step on the ascent of rational knowledge’ is both dangerously arrogant and false.

In trying to show why this is so, I won’t be indulging in any romanticised view of indigenous cultures. I come from a diverse and dominating culture that has discovered only recently, thousands of exoplanets, gravitational waves that Einstein postulated but never thought could be discovered, and the Higgs boson, a particle that I’m excited by even without having much idea of its nature or vital role in the cosmic structure. I should also mention our ability to create entire human beings from a single somatic cell, through induced pluripotency – and it may be that these astonishing achievements may be overtaken by others more astonishing still, by the time I’ve finished writing this work. But of course when I say ‘our’ achievements, I’m well aware of my non-role in all this. I’m, in a sense, a mere particle caught up and swept along in the tide of momentous events. I had no choice in being a Europeanised human male. I could’ve been born as an Easter Islander, or an Aboriginal Australian. Or indeed, as a bonobo. My inheritance, and my place in the culture or species I belong to, is not a matter of free will. And being born in a different culture would make me think very differently, but no more or less ‘rationally’. 

As mentioned, there has been some important research on the experience of the early human inhabitants of Rapa Nui lately. Of course it’s difficult to get clear data on Rapa Nui culture, clouded as it is by the ideologies of different researchers, by the myths and legends of the islanders themselves, by the lack of written records and the difficulties of interpreting and dating remains, tools, ash-heaps and other artifacts, but it’s frankly hard to believe that these islanders, so attuned to their environment, would have engaged in the thoughtless or ‘irrational’ destruction of it that Bronowski et al accuse them of. The most recent analysis, published only a few months ago, paints a different picture:

During the last decade, several continuous (gap‐free) and chronologically coherent sediment cores encompassing the last millennia have been retrieved and analysed, providing a new picture of forest removal on Easter Island. According to these analyses, deforestation was not abrupt but gradual and occurred at different times and rates, depending on the site. Regarding the causes, humans were not the only factors responsible for forest clearing, as climatic droughts as well as climate–human–landscape feedbacks and synergies also played a role. In summary, the deforestation of Easter Island was a complex process that was spatially and temporally heterogeneous and took place under the actions and interactions of both natural and anthropogenic drivers. In addition, archaeological evidence shows that the Rapanui civilization was resilient to deforestation and remained healthy until European contact, which contradicts the occurrence of a cultural collapse. 

What is certain, as Diamond’s analysis has shown, is that the island was less hospitable than most for sustaining human life, and yet the Rapa Nui people endured, and, as the account left by Roggeveen and his men shows, they were hardly a starving, desperate remnant in 1722.

References

Bruce Pascoe, Dark Emu

David Deutsch, The beginning of infinity

Jared Diamond, Collapse

http://nautil.us/issue/7/waste/not-merely-the-finest-tv-documentary-series-ever-made

https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/brv.12556#:~:text=Easter%20Island%20deforestation%20has%20traditionally,precipitated%20its%20own%20cultural%20collapse.&text=According%20to%20these%20analyses%2C%20deforestation,rates%2C%20depending%20on%20the%20site.

reading matters 13: the glass universe

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Canto: So The glass universe, published in 2016, has a cute title, referring as it does to the ‘glass ceiling’, another clever term for that invisible barrier up there that appears to prevent women from rising in politics, business and science, but also to the glass photographic plates upon which were recorded the spectrographic signatures of a vast arrays of stars, clusters and the like, in the decades of the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, by a somewhat less vast array of human computers – the name given to the largely underpaid female stargazers and recorders of Harvard College observatory and elsewhere.

Jacinta: Yes, Dava Sobel, author of the fascinating little book Longitude, as well as Galileo’s Daughter, which is in a stack of books here waiting to be read, has brought to life a group of dedicated women and their male supporters over a period when the higher education of women was just starting to be addressed. 

Canto: Yes, it all started with the Drapers, a wealthy and well-connected couple in the 1870s. Henry was a leading astronomer of the day, and ‘Mrs Henry’, aka Anna, a socialite and heiress. Their social evenings were mostly science-focused, with guests including the inventor Thomas Edison, the zoologist Alexander Agassiz, and Prof. Edward Pickering, of Harvard. Henry Draper was working on the chemical make-up of stars, using ‘a prism that split starlight into its spectrum of component colours’, for which he’d won great acclaim, when he died suddenly of a flu-like illness in his mid-forties. His devoted and rich widow, keen to continue his legacy, helped finance, along with Pickering, a continuation of his ground-breaking research.  

Jacinta: And so the computers of Harvard College Observatory were born. We need to explain – or try to – the science of spectrographic analysis, but I’d like to first briefly describe some of the women who did this work. They include Williamina (Mina) Fleming, a canny Scotswoman frae Dundee (our birthplace), whose first American job was as the Pickering’s maid but who soon proved her worth as a star spotter and tracker, classifier, and organiser, leading the team of computers in the early decades. In 1899 she was given the title of ‘curator of astronomical photographs’, becoming the first titled female in the university’s history. As such she presided over 12 women ‘engaged in the care of the photographs; identification, examination and measurement of them; reduction of these measurements, and preparation of results for the printer’. 

Canto: Far from just bureaucratic work – this would’ve involved a lot of learning and conjecture, noting patterns and anomalies and trying to account for them.

Jacinta: Absolutely. Antonia Maury, Annie Jump Cannon, Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, Henrietta Leavitt and the tragically short-lived Adelaide Ames were among the most noteworthy of these computers, and I should stop using the term, because they weren’t machines and they all made lasting contributions to the field…

Canto: And they all have their own Wikipedia pages. What more evidence do we need?

Jacinta: They contributed to academic papers, often without attribution, especially in the early years, and had their findings read out in academic institutions to which they were barred. Over time they became established teachers and lecturers, in the women’s colleges which started to become a thing in the twenties. But let’s get onto the daunting stuff of science. How were these glass plates created and what did they reveal?

Canto: So spectroscopy became a thing in the 1860s. Spectroscopes were attached to telescopes, and they separated starlight into ‘a pale strip of coloured light ranging from reddish at one end through orange, yellow, green, and blue to violet at the other’. I quote from the book. But what these changing colours meant exactly, as well as the ‘many black vertical lines interspersed at intervals along the coloured strip’, this was all something of a mystery, a code that needed to be cracked. Henry Draper had captured these spectral lines and intervals on photographic plates, which were bequeathed to Harvard by his widow. They formed the beginning of the collection. 

Jacinta: The term spectrum was first used by Isaac Newton two centuries earlier, and he correctly claimed that this coloration wasn’t due to flaws in glass and crystals but was a property of light itself. The dark lines within the stellar spectra on Draper’s plates are called Fraunhofer lines, after a Bavarian lens-maker, Joseph von Fraunhofer, who built the first spectroscope. He at first thought the dark lines between the rainbow of colours his instrument produced were somehow artificial, but continued work convinced him that they were a natural effect. He gave them alphabetical labels according to their thickness, including the letter D for a double line in the pale orange region. He mapped hundreds of them, though today we’ve detected many thousands of them in sunlight. He didn’t understand what they were, though he realised they were something significant. Later in the 19th century Robert Bunsen and Gustav Kirchov conducted experiments with various chemical elements and found that they burned in colours around those black lines, which we now know as absorption lines. 

Canto: Yes, it was Kirchov who connected the colours created by burning elements to the spectral lines that the sun’s light could be separated into, concluding that this great fireball of gases producing white light in the sky was actually a mixture of burning elements, or elements being transformed into other elements. As to the absorption lines, Sobel puts it this way:

As light radiated through the sun’s outer layers, the bright emission lines from the solar conflagration were absorbed in the cooler surrounding atmosphere, leaving dark telltale gaps in the solar spectrum.

These absorption lines, which together with emission lines, are spectral lines in the visible spectrum which ‘can be used to identify the atoms, elements or molecules present in a star, galaxy or cloud of interstellar gas’, to quote from this Swinburne University site

Jacinta: So we’ll try to keep within the confines of the book, and the scientific developments of the period which these women, in particular, contributed to. So, rather, surprisingly to us modern wiseacres, these revelations about the sun as a super-hot fireball and a producer of elements was a bit hard for 19th century folk to take in, but scientists were excited. Henry Draper described spectral analysis as having ‘made the chemist’s arms millions of miles long’, and in 1872 he began photographing the spectra of other stars. It was long known that they had different colours and brightnesses – called ‘apparent luminosities’ – but spectral analysis provided more detailed data for categorisation, and sets of photographs revealed changes in luminosity and colour over time. Williamina Fleming, Harvard’s principal computer, took charge of Draper’s thousands of plates, which provided the most detailed spectral data of stars up to that time, and was able to analyse them into classes, via their absorption lines, in new and complex ways. It was cutting edge science.

Canto: There was also an interest in throwing more light, so to speak, on variable stars. They were so numerous and complex in their variability that Pickering needed more computers to track them. Lacking funds, he advertised for volunteers, emphasising the role of women in particular, whose effectiveness he’d seen plenty of evidence for. 

Jacinta: Not to mention their willingness to work for less, or effectively nothing. These were often siblings or partners of astronomers or other scientists, with unfulfilled scientific ambitions. Later, though, came from the newly created ‘Ladies’ Colleges, such as Radcliffe and Wellesley.

Canto: The Orion Nebula was a particularly rich source of these variable stars, and Pickering found an ideal computer, Henrietta Leavitt, a Radcliffe graduate, to explore them. Within six months, she’d confirmed previous identifications of variables in the nebula and added more than 50 others, afterwards confirmed by Fleming. Then, using a combination of negative and positive glass plates, she found hundreds more, in the Orion Nebula and the Small Magellanic Cloud. As Pickering pointed out, due to the lack of resolution in the plates, this number was likely the tip of the iceberg. In writing up a report of her findings, Leavitt described a pattern she’d found: ‘It is worthy of notice… that the brighter variables [aka cepheid variables] have the longer periods’. This brightness (or luminosity) and its relationship to periodicity (the time taken to go through a full cycle of change) is now known as the Leavitt Law, though of course it took decades for Henrietta Leavitt to receive full recognition for discovering it. 

Jacinta: Yes, it’s worth noting that these women worked painstakingly on data analysis, developing new and more rigorous classification systems, studying and theorising about anomalies, and communicating their findings to leading astronomers and researchers around the world. And it’s also worth noting that they were supported and highly appreciated at Harvard by Edward Pickering and his successor as Director of the Harvard College Observatory, Harlow Shapley – though of course there were plenty of naysayers. 

Canto: Okay so we’ve spoken of two or three of the computer stars’, and there were many more, but let’s finish with the work of Antonia Maury. 

Jacinta: Well we must also mention Annie Jump Cannon (great name), star classifier and photographer extraordinaire, suffragist and generally formidable persona, in spite of being almost completely deaf. She classified around 350,000 stars and contributed greatly to the Harvard Classification Scheme, the first international star classification system. Antonia Coetana de Paiva Pereira Maury (I’m not kidding), a graduate of Vassar College, was a niece of Henry Draper. 

Canto: Not what you know but who you know? 

Jacinta: It is partly that – and that cliché is worth a whole book to itself – but Maury was no slouch, she was a keen and observant star observer and systemiser. One important discovery she shared with Pickering was one of the first known binary star systems, in the handle of the Big Dipper. This required months of careful observation from 1887 through 1889, as they noted one spectral line separating into two then the lines merging again, then separating, with one line shifting slightly to the red end of the spectrum and the other to the blue. Once they recognised that they were dealing with binary star systems, others were soon found. And once these systems were confirmed, Maury carefully calculated their orbital periods and speeds.

Canto: There were many other important breakthroughs. Spectral colours, as we’ve pointed out, were connected to particular chemical elements, and Cecilia Payne, whose major focus was the measurement of stellar temperatures, found a superabundance in the elements hydrogen and helium, which confounded other experts and soon made her doubt her own calculations. Payne wrote up her findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 1925, ‘admitting’ that the percentages of hydrogen and helium were ‘improbably high’ and ‘almost certainly not real’. 

Jacinta: Yes, it’s well worth noting that the knowledge we have of stars today, which seems almost eternal to us, is in fact very recent. The book also covers the dispute between Harlow Shapley and Edwin Hubble – with many on either side of course – as to whether other galaxies existed. That dispute was only resolved in the thirties, and now we count other galaxies in the trillions. So the period covered in Sobel’s book was a truly transformative period in our understanding of the universe, as well as transformative in terms of women’s education and women’s participation in the most heavenly of all the sciences. 

Canto: Whateva.

References

The glass universe, by Dava Sobel, 2016

https://science.nasa.gov/astrophysics/focus-areas/what-are-galaxies

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Annie_Jump_Cannon

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antonia_Maury

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Williamina_Fleming

https://www.britannica.com/biography/Henrietta-Swan-Leavitt

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cecilia_Payne-Gaposchkin

Written by stewart henderson

October 22, 2020 at 1:22 pm